By Brendan Fischer on January 13, 2014

New details have emerged about the role of the shadowy "Citizens for a Strong America" in Wisconsin politics.

John Connors, President of Citizens for a Strong AmericaLast August, the Center for Media and Democracy uncovered that Citizens for a Strong America in 2011 gave $235,000 to United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, a group with close Republican ties that won and then lost a $500,000 taxpayer grant to promote hunting in the state, despite little experience with such activities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports today that this $235,000 donation was United Sportsmen's entire budget in 2011.

As CMD has reported, Citizens for a Strong America was itself entirely funded by Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011. This means that Wisconsin Club for Growth effectively bankrolled United Sportsmen, with Citizens for a Strong America acting as an intermediary. One of Wisconsin Club for Growth's leaders is RJ Johnson, a top advisor to Governor Scott Walker, who Walker repeatedly praises in his autobiography Unintimidated.

Separately, on Friday it was reported for the first time that Citizens for a Strong America had been involved in the John Doe probe into potential campaign finance violations during the recall elections.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote on Friday that subpoenas issued to Citizens for a Strong America, Friends of Scott Walker, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Inc., and the Wisconsin Club for Growth were quashed by retired Appeals Judge Gregory A. Peterson, because they "do not show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign finance laws."

This was the first time Citizens for a Strong America has been named as involved in the probe.

Since 2011, CMD has reported extensively on the activities of this group in the state, and revealed exclusively that the president of Citizens for a Strong America, John Connors, is "Director of Special Projects" for the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity/Wisconsin Reporter.

This helps explain the Franklin Center's eighteen-part series attacking the John Doe as well as some of its unique insights into the case. The Franklin Center has failed to disclose Connors' connection to the issue and fails to regularly note that the Franklin Center's founder Eric O'Keefe (Director of Wisconsin Club for Growth) was subpoenaed in the investigation. On January 10, when Franklin Center / Wisconsin Reporter wrote about the quashed subpoenas for Citizens for a Strong America and other organizations, it did not mention its close ties to the group.

Below we recap some of these previous reports.


From the article Why Are the Franklin Center's "Wisconsin Reporter" and "Watchdog.org" Attacking the John Doe?

Wisconsin Club for Growth soon became the most prominent name associated with the John Doe after its director, Eric O'Keefe, told the Wall Street Journal editorial board that he had been subpoenaed, with the investigation allegedly looking into what the Wall Street Journal called "illegal campaign coordination" between campaigns and independent groups. The group is also led by RJ Johnson, a top Walker advisor.

CMD uncovered how in 2011, O'Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth took in $12 million, some of it from dark money conduits like the Koch-connected Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) and the Wellspring Committee, and in turn shuffled millions to other organizations that spent money on ads during Wisconsin's Supreme Court race and recall elections. (CPPR, which is connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, was recently fined $1 million by California's elections board for its role in what the Washington Post called "a series of money swaps and transfers through a network of politically active nonprofit groups" to avoid donor disclosure. California prosecutors called it "campaign money laundering").

All of the groups involved in Wisconsin Club for Growth's monetary transfers are "dark money" groups, a phrase which refers to election spending by nonprofits that exploit loopholes in campaign finance disclosure laws, and keep their donors secret by running "issue ads" designed to influence elections.

Franklin Center's John Connors Directly Connected to Dark Money Web

A central character in the Wisconsin Club for Growth dark money web is John Connors, the Franklin Center's "Director of Special Projects," who has close ties to many of the groups receiving funding from O'Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth. Some of those groups have reportedly been subpoenaed.

In the wake of the Center for Media and Democracy's reporting on money changing hands between O'Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth and groups tied to Connors, Franklin Center's Wisconsin Reporter quickly went on the offensive in a series of articles, making up its own definition of "dark money" for an unfounded attack on CMD's credibility, and falsely claiming that CMD's reporting constituted the launch of a "national campaign" to "unseat the governor."

None of the articles note Connors' ties to the Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter, even when attacking CMD's stories that address him by name.

Here are some examples of those ties:

  • Connors is president of Citizens for a Strong America, whose entire $4.62 million budget in 2011 came from Wisconsin Club for Growth, and which spent $836,000 on ads (some of which included misleading claims) in support of Justice David Prosser during his 2011 Supreme Court race, and additional undisclosed amounts on Senate recall races that year. The Treasurer of Citizens for a Strong America is Valerie Johnson, wife of R.J. Johnson, who is a top advisor to both Wisconsin Club for Growth and Governor Walker.
  • Connors registered the web domain for United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, a group that worked with Wisconsin Family Action and Americans for Prosperity on an operation during the 2011 recall races in which absentee ballot applications were sent with the incorrect date for elections. Connors' Citizens for a Strong America transferred $236,000 to United Sportsmen in 2011. The United Sportsmen group was embroiled in scandal earlier this year after outgoing Assembly Majority leader Scott Suder cut a $500,000 taxpayer-funded "sweetheart deal" for the group, which Governor Walker rescinded after public outcry.

A review of Franklin Center's tax filings shows that it has paid $235,157 to Connors' Milwaukee-based consulting firm, J Connors & Co, over the past two years ($114,930 in 2012 and $119,227 in 2011). A close Connors associate, Claire Milbrant, who has worked at J Connors & Co since its founding in 2009, was also hired by the Franklin Center last month as its Executive Assistant to the President.

In addition to being the Franklin Center's "Director of Special Projects" -- part of its "leadership team," according to the organization's website -- Connors registered Wisconsin Reporter's "Watchdog.org" web domain.

Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter has attacked CMD's reporting about Connors' groups but has failed to mention that one of its directors is directly tied to those organizations.

Read more: Why Are the Franklin Center's "Wisconsin Reporter" and "Watchdog.org" Attacking the John Doe?

Bill Moyers presents "United States of ALEC," a report on the most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of -- ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.